The great scholars of writing process have reminded us from time to time that we read and write to validate who we are, what we have become and what we can be. Today their writing continues to awaken us to the common thread that ties us all together in an archetypal way. No matter where we are in the world and what we have experienced, the quality of being human, with its collective, parallel human mythology, binds us and allows us to understand each other's joy and suffering. This ability to connect may be one of the most important reasons for reading and writing personal essays, often referred to as personal narratives and memoirs.
Writers who produce short memoirs, little snippets of their remembered experiences, reflect on the events of their past, securing the images and emotions that accompany them. In writing about their lives, the experiences surrounding people, places, and events of importance to students, three categories can offer a number of interesting paths to explore:
· A discovery of a person, place, idea, or problem that has affected you or someone else
· An awareness of a person, place, or event of significance and the whole range of possible emotions associated with it
· A decision you or someone close to you had to make and the accompanying issues and details
In writing a personal essay, narrative, or memoir, writers should try to present themselves to the reader in such a way that they disclose something significant about themselves as well as the events or people in their lives that they are trying to portray. This technique, often called the writer's voice, establishes a personality that emerges from the page with every clue. When the reader finishes the essay, she has enough information to draw conclusions about how the writer thinks and feels. The secret to success is writing the essay while maintaining a balance between creating a dominant impression and not sharing too much.
So how do you, the writer, accomplish this balance? To start with, you can give the reader an experience with which he can connect. The subject, usually a remembered event or person that is disclosed through writing, reveals not only the writer's experiences but also the attitude of the writer to the experience, her tone, measured out by diction and description. Figurative language, imagery, details, and anecdotes-all the tools of choice you have gained as a writer and literary critic-are the resources you need to make the reader see what you see in your mind's eye as you write.
Three main parts comprise the organization of the personal essay: introduction, elaboration and focus on the person or incident, and the conclusion. Writing a personal essay can be enabling for all of us. Even though the process offers slightly different rewards for reader and writer, the outcome of the personal essay allows us both to see ourselves through the common human experiences of others. We look for wisdom from that great champion of writing Donald Murray, who says, "We write to explore the constellations and galaxies that lie within us, waiting to be mapped with our own words." Writing about ourselves can sometimes turn us into intrepid explorers.
Ten Suggestions for Writing Personal Essays
1. Hubris: an experience that involved excessive pride in you or someone you know
2. An event that made you see your culture differently and led to a paradigm shift
3. An observation or experience in nature that explains your philosophy of life
4. A Latin saying that proves true today for you or life in general, e.g., "Mater atrium necessitas"-Necessity is the mother of invention
5. Antithesis: opposites in your own experience that seem to point to a truth about life.
6. Metaphor, oxymoron, hyperbole: how do these examples of figurative language remind you of people, places, or things in your experience?
7. A confidence you want to share with the reader
8. Humor and wit about a subject expressed ironically or whimsically or even in a self-deprecating way that is light, not so heavy that the humor becomes dark
9. A graceful, poignant look at a serious topic about which you know something personally
10. A real-life legend, or perhaps someone heading in that direction: one whose actions seem to make the world a better place, or at least a more interesting place
In the complex labyrinths of our minds and lives, we look for solutions that will clarify and explain our existence. Thus writing, in an archetypal way, is like Ariadne's thread that Theseus follows as he not only finds his own way out of the great labyrinth of the Minotaur but leads others out as well.
For more information about writing personal essays, examine the following sources:
Murray, Donald. Learning by Teaching. Portsmouth: Boynton, 1982.
O'Connor, Susan. Dance of Language. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2008,